Cornering the Market

"He is not of the Christ," says Jose Hidalgo, gesturing wildly at Bill, the panhandler he's competing with at the intersection of Alameda Avenue and Santa Fe Drive. "He does not believe. He is not polite."

To illustrate his point, Jose hails a nearby Julian Electric truck and tells the driver to explain the evils of Bill. Julian gazes over at Bill. "I see him all the time," he shouts quickly, before the light changes. "He's flipped me off many times."

Bill looks after the departing truck, hurt and befuddled. "Not today," he says. "I haven't seen him today."

But Bill recovers quickly. Within seconds, two other drivers stop, hand Bill some bills, then speed away. This corner, right next to Denny's, is very lucrative. Northbound traffic is always heavy, and drivers are generous. Bill can usually make a hundred bucks in a few hours. He'd stay longer, but he has to catch the 4:30 p.m. bus back to his apartment in Aurora. He doesn't like to be out after dark, and the money just isn't that good then, anyway.

When Jose is around, though, fighting for turf on the same corner, the money is even worse.

"When he's out here, he gets three-quarters of the money. I'm not kidding," says Bill, who would look weary and bedraggled standing next to almost anyone. But his missing teeth, dirty jeans, stained sweatshirt and blue Solomon cap appear even worse next to Jose's groomed presence. Jose looks all official and approachable in his white suit with red emblems at the shoulder, an outfit completed with a clipboard holding literature and a donation can. He's raising money for the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ. He tells passersby that the church has 5,000 people working worldwide, helping others with drug addictions and homelessness.

Bill thinks that Jose's full of shit, so he's flying a sign that warns, "Don't give to White. (FAKE)."

"He's a fake," Bill says. "He's not homeless; he doesn't have no church. They come out here and they take my money, but it's a scam. It's been all over the newspapers and the TVs."

Bill's not exactly right, but he's not exactly wrong, either. The Covina, California-based church was commended for driving to New York and serving hot meals right after 9/11 and has no readily obvious black marks. But still, even Christian oversight groups have the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ on their watch list. In Colorado, the organization's incorporation has been revoked several times since 1990 by the secretary of state's office. It's hard to tell what the church does with the money it raises here, because the nonprofit has failed to submit annual reports (leading to its revoked status). Nationally, the church has been sued several times -- most notably by Wal-Mart -- in connection with its aggressive panhandling. The church's website quotes Bible Scripture and tells people how to donate; the phone number listed there goes to a fax.

The local number for the church that Jose provides rings directly to him. Identifying himself as the local pastor, he explains that the Missionary Church of the Disciples of Jesus Christ has been offering services in Denver for only four months, even though it's been registered with the state for fourteen years. "Services are in the basement," he explains. "We are renting a house. We don't have a denomination. We believe in everything what the Bible says."

Bill doesn't care much what the Bible says. He's more interested in telling how he served his country and was a decorated hero. He's glad he voted for Bush, he says, because "if Kerry had gotten elected, we'd have another 9/11." Moments later, he explains that Bush and the administration "knew 9/11 was going to happen." He says he's angry because Hispanics don't have to pay income taxes and acts taken aback when he's told that's not true. But then, he doesn't pay income tax, either. "I worked for the right not to," he insists.

These days, his only work consists of patrolling this corner. The rent on the place where he lives with his wife is $690, and what he gets from veteran benefits and Social Security only totals $527. He doesn't want to lose those benefits, he says, so he panhandles.

On this hotly contested corner, which panhandler deserves a handout? A non-homeless man capable of working who won't, or a homeless church with paperwork problems? When signs are flying high, who truly needs your help?

"I don't think you can really answer that question," says John Desmond of the Downtown Denver Partnership. "Even a trained professional may not know right away. There's no way you can tell whether someone is, in fact, homeless -- and, even if they are, whether they are using that money to support something else. We're pretty convinced that money is not actually helping them and is keeping them out on the streets."

Bob Coté, the founder of Step 13, has printed up more than 100,000 free-meal certificates over the past two decades -- and only 34 were ever redeemed. "My litmus test is that coupon," says Coté, who was once an alcoholic living on the streets. "If you want a job or want a meal, then, hey, here's your lucky day, here's everything you need. But if you give them those coupons, they won't come up to you again. I walk down the 16th Street Mall, and people won't approach me -- except for the people who don't know me."

Coté's other trick is to look at panhandlers' feet. "If there's a bunch of cigarettes around their feet, then they have enough money for cigarettes," he says. "Or look for a bottle."

But even Coté knows his system isn't foolproof. "There's this guy in Cherry Creek, and he has on a suit and tie, and he works Saturday," he says. "He drives a new Buick. He will dirty his hands, and he'll say he has a flat tire and he doesn't have any cash. He gives people a card saying he'll send them the money, but he doesn't. He makes a couple of hundred that way."

Victor Hernandez's first clue is the clothes. As the outreach coordinator for Urban Peak Denver, he's gotten to know many of the city's homeless kids, and he can now spot someone who doesn't look quite right. "We'll know if that line of clothing was just bought, because some of the styles and fashions just came out," he explains. "If you see a homeless person wearing it, they might have stolen it, but if you see it two or three times, wellŠ"

Hernandez has seen the weekend warriors, of course, the kids who come in from their nice, suburban homes for some inner-city grit. With this group, it's important to catch the footwear. Nice shoes with scuzzy clothes are the tell-tale sign. "When the street youth encounter that kind of youth, they don't really like that. They kind of weed them out," Hernandez says. "And they'll tell us. We've built that relationship, and they can tell us those kind of things. They'll just kick them off their corner. They think it's a slap in the face."

Bernard O'Connell, the Partnership's mall-outreach coordinator, sees very few people begging for amusement. "Very rarely is it done for fun," he says. "They're doing it for an addiction. The elderly, they'll panhandle for a room that night. If you're dealing with the kids, they're all heroin addicts. Well, most of them. In front of Walgreen's, come Friday night, you get a lot of weekend warriors. They'll panhandle to get the money to go back on the bus.

"Just never give money to a corner," he concludes.

Bill and Jose would vehemently disagree -- and they do. Both consider themselves perfectly good causes. Both would pass the footwear and cigarette-butt test. They'd pass the clothing test. They'd pass the booze-smell test. They may not appreciate each other, but they always thank their donors. So, should you ever give panhandlers like these a helping hand?

"They're clever, and some of them do very, very well because Denver is a very kind, caring city," Coté says. "It really is."